This week Effingham lived up to its motto “Crossroads of Opportunity” when the city welcomed Race Across America, an annual event that takes serious cyclists from around the world on a 3,000-mile journey.
Thursday night a team of wounded veterans proved that the race is an opportunity for all.
“We’re eight wounded soldiers who started cycling through rehabilitation,” said Keoki Smythe of the Walter Reed Bethesda Cycling Team. “No matter what our injuries, this allows us to compete again.”
Michael Frazier rolled through Effingham just before 10:30 p.m. on a kneeling bike, which allows a person with leg disabilities or amputations to pedal with his or her arms instead.
Anthony Robinson tagged in and took off on Henrietta Street, also on a kneeling bike.
Race Across America, touted as the World’s Toughest Bicycle Race, began in Oceanside, Calif., challenging professional and amateur cyclists alike to cross 12 states and 350 communities as quickly as possible on their way to Annapolis, Md.
This is the 32nd year for the race, which began with four cyclists in 1982. About 40 percent of the cyclists now are international contestants.
According to www.raceacrossamerica.org, the Walter Reed Bethesda Cycling Team’s fastest period was between Washington, Mo., and the Mississippi River. The cyclists averaged 32.46 miles per hour on the 72.5-mile ride.
Keloa Dietz, another team member, said he rides to inspire other wounded veterans, saying the teammates’ injuries “shouldn’t slow us down.”
Smythe was a runner before his injuries, and relishes the chance to be physically active again through cycling.
“I can be active without hurting,” he said. “I have no excuse (not to).”
About 10 people were at the Effingham time station, at the south end of Effingham High School, Thursday night to cheer on the veterans, thank them for their service and listen to their race experiences.
Mike Tipton of Teutopolis, who has volunteered at the station for years, said he had spoken to a woman in the team’s entourage.
“She said these guys just thrive on this,” Tipton said. “They look forward to doing this.”
The station and its many volunteers man a table with donated doughnuts, bananas, pizzas and other snacks and beverages, and soak up the stories stopped cyclists share.
Tipton even recognizes some riders from year to year. For the last few years, Gerhardt Gulewicz, who came in fourth place this year, had given Tipton a T-shirt on his way through. Last year, Gulewicz gave Tipton’s son a cycling jersey.
“It’s just interesting to talk to them,” Tipton said. “Listening to their experiences crossing our country — they see things I’ll never see.”
The school opened its locker room doors to the athletes, allowing them to get what could be their only shower during the race.
Smythe said he appreciated the volunteers at the time station, adding that a number of stations so far had been unmanned.
“The adventure’s been incredible,” he said. “We appreciate everybody coming out to support us.”
The team is slated to finish at 3:10 a.m. Eastern on Sunday.
Nicole Dominique can be reached at 217-347-7151, ext. 138, or at email@example.com.